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Lost in My Mind

Mar 7 2017
Mar 7 2017

My family used to have a 1940 Massey-Harris tractor on our farm in Saskatchewan.

It was like one of those you see on the side of the road, the ones that have been tossed aside and left to be covered in rust. It was a relic from another era — filled with memories from a different time.

I always wanted to drive it, but my parents wouldn’t let me.

So I had to improvise.

There was a small grass-covered hill on the south end of our farm. When I was seven years old, I used to work out by pushing our tractor up that hill. I’d carry a brick with me in my left arm, like it was a football, and push with my right. When I got tired, I’d place the brick under the wheel so that the tractor wouldn’t roll downhill. Then I’d sit on the ground with my back against the hot metal of the hood and wipe sweat from my forehead. Saskatchewan summers can get damn warm.

But as we used to say on the farm, “If you were sweatin’, you were workin’.”

Once I got to the top of the hill, I would turn the wheel and push the tractor until it was facing back down the slope. I’d aim it, give it a big push and then hop up into the driver’s seat as it started to roll faster and faster. If I was lucky, I’d get 10 seconds behind the wheel — when I would actually be driving the tractor.

And once I got to the bottom, I’d turn the tractor around and do it all over again.

Routine.

I loved routine.

Routine is what got me through my younger days. In the summer, my routine was all about my life on the farm — baling hay and pushing tractors. But in the winter, my routine was all about ice.

When the weather got cold, I lived on our outdoor rink.

I’d come home from school, put on my skates and head straight out to the sheet of ice that my dad put down in our backyard every winter. It didn’t matter if it was –5°C, or –25°C, I would stay out there all night. I was obsessed with practicing — I did it constantly — because it was something I was good at.

My mom used to have to drag me off the ice every night — literally. She’d come outside, grab me by the collar and make me go inside and do my homework.

I hated school. I hated homework.

Brent Sopel

I didn’t understand any of it. Homework — even just the thought of it — intimidated me way more than the freezing cold or falling on the ice.

Words looked weird to me, and I couldn’t deal with numbers. Math gave me headaches. I couldn’t understand how schoolwork seemed to come so naturally to other kids. It made me feel so left out.

People at school treated me like I was stupid. I got so used to it that I actually began to believe it myself. I don’t remember any of my teachers ever going out of their way to try to figure out why I had trouble learning. They just moved on — and so I did too. What else was an eight-year-old boy supposed to do?

I focused on the one thing I knew I was good at — hockey. When I was a kid, it was like the ice was the only place I felt comfortable.

Just like the farm was an island of sanity for me, so was the rink. I felt calm out there. I was accomplishing something every time I put on my skates. I was improving at something — for once.

The older I got, the more trouble I had in school. When I was in Grade 8, my teachers tested my reading ability. I was reading at a fourth-grade level. But again, nobody seemed to know what to do about it. Once again, everybody just moved on.

In Grade 9, on one of our first days of the new school year, we had to go up to the front of the class and read aloud in front of everybody.

“Brent, can you come read these two paragraphs for us?” the teacher asked me.

I walked up, dreading what I knew was about to happen. I tried to bluff my way through.

But when I looked down at the page the letters were jumbled — they didn’t even look like letters, actually. Some were blurred, or upside down. They might as well have been in a different language.

I couldn’t do it. I guessed, and spoke quickly and quietly to get it over with.

The other kids started laughing and making fun of me. They were pointing at me and whispering in each other’s ears. It was my worst nightmare.

Have you ever had that feeling of wanting to be anywhere else in the world other than where you are? It burns in your mind. It’s impossible to shake. I just wanted to put on my skates and get away from everyone. I wanted to do something that made me feel a sense of accomplishment, not shame.

I didn’t tell my parents, or anyone else what had happened. They won’t care. I’m just stupid, I thought. I wasn’t afraid to tell them. I just assumed they wouldn’t know what to do.

I just kept going on with my life. It was easier to avoid talking about the elephant in the room — that I was, for some reason, slower than others my age — than it was to do something about it. My stepmom helped me with my homework most nights. She’s probably the only reason I passed any of my classes in high school.

I owe my stepmother a great deal for her patience. Most of my teachers knew that I was really good at hockey. They probably also knew that I had a chance to go somewhere with it. Nobody ever held me back.

In Canada, hockey is a religion that forgives many flaws.
Brent Sopel

Have you ever had that feeling of wanting to be anywhere else in the world other than where you are?

Brent Sopel

Back then, all I ever wanted to do was play goalie – just like my hero, Patrick Roy. I had his posters all over the walls of my room. I had these tiny, little foam pads that I would color in with the Habs’ bleu, blanc et rouge. I loved stopping the puck — it didn’t matter who was shooting. My parents both worked a lot, so I would invite friends over to play on my rink so I could play in goal and make lots of saves.

I knew I couldn’t get enough practice as a goalie to really improve. There wasn’t anyone around to shoot on me often enough, so I would put my sister in net to work on my shot and offensive game. She wouldn’t last out in the cold with me for very long, but I didn’t care. From sunup to sundown, all I thought about was hockey. I didn’t have that much skill, but I still loved to block shots even if I wasn’t in goal. So naturally, I became a defenseman.

You’ve heard of the 10,000 hours theory, right? I must have put in 10,000 hours on our backyard rink by the time I was 15 years old.

I was out there not only because I loved it, but also because it was my distraction. It kept me from thinking too much about my other problems.

Despite all my hours on the ice, I was never the fastest or the most skilled player — but I’d be damned if anyone was going to outwork me. It just wasn’t going to happen. I got that attitude from working on the farm. I cherished every second I spent on our plot of land. Harvesting the chickens, tending to the cows — I appreciated how much work went into the day-to-day operation of the farm. It taught me that hard work is the foundation for success.

I carried that lesson with me on every step of my journey.

The better I got at hockey, the more work I put into it — and the less attention I paid to reading and writing. My focus became the NHL, and the next big step for me after school was junior hockey in Swift Current.

From there, I entered the 1995 NHL draft. I had been projected to go in one of the early rounds, but I wound up falling all the way to the sixth. One hundred forty-three guys were selected before the Vancouver Canucks took me at No. 144. I was told later that I had fallen so far because I didn’t skate well enough and I was too slow.

But what the scouts couldn’t see was my hockey IQ.

I always thought that was ironic. Here’s this kid who everyone thinks is an idiot and is only going to make it in life because he can play hockey.

But when I was drafted into the NHL, my biggest asset was my brain.

Brent SopelYou see, I knew where an attacker was going before he did. I knew how to defend a fast skater, a skilled puckhandler and a tricky passer. All the hours I had spent on the ice may have not paid off the way I had hoped physically — I wasn’t an elite skater — but mentally … I was at another level.

After spending a lot of hours on buses during two and a half years of grinding in the AHL, I finally caught a break. The Canucks’ coaches had taken notice of my playing style, and they thought they could use a guy like me on the blue line.

My first NHL game was in Chicago in 1999, in a building that would eventually become one of the most important places in my life: “the Madhouse on Madison,” or as it’s formally known, the United Center. I’ll never forget that night. Marc Crawford put me in the starting lineup with Bryan McCabe, Donald Brashear, Trent Klatt and Matt Cooke.

The United Center wasn’t at all like it is today. It was pretty much empty — just a few rowdy fans sprinkled around. The Blackhawks had a very tough team back then. Their roster included Bob Probert, Reid Simpson, Brad Brown, and they had a legacy of hard hitters. That Chicago team was one of the last of its kind — one made up of good ol’ boys who were going to make sure you needed an ice bath after the game.

I remember lining up for puck drop, looking across the ice, seeing Probert and thinking:

I’m going to die. I’m going to die here tonight. I’m actually going to die on this ice.  

But if I had died that night, I would have died a happy man. All my life my goal had been to play in the NHL, and I had finally made it. I  had achieved my goal, but I also still remembered the reasons I’d been given for why I’d fallen so far in the draft. It gave me a chip on my shoulder — much like the one I’d carried ever since that day in Grade 9 when everybody had laughed at me. I wanted to prove everybody wrong. It pushed me.

It pushed me too far.


Being an NHL player can be a lonely existence. People think you’re always surrounded by teammates and that you’re all just playing a game and having a good time. And that’s true, to an extent. But there’s so much more to life in the NHL than just the 60 minutes on the ice.

There were the bus rides, the flights, the hotel rooms — all those times in between games when I was alone with my thoughts. For me, I hated being in my own head like that. Who wouldn’t if you had grown up questioning your mental capabilities every single day? Even achieving my dream of playing in the NHL couldn’t erase the destructive impact of not having gotten the right help when I was in school — or, to be fair, the fact that there was too little knowledge about my problems for people to know how to provide me with the proper support.

I felt … out of my mind … or maybe that I didn’t belong.

I couldn’t take the sense of crippling loneliness that I was feeling when I was by myself. It exhausted me.

I turned to alcohol. It kept me numb.

When I was drinking, I didn’t have to face reality — it was a relief. On some road trips the first thing I’d do after we landed in a city was call our hotel to make sure there were 24 cold beers waiting for me in my room. Very few of my teammates wanted to share a room with me because they thought I was crazy, or at least too obsessive about my routines. I would spend many of my off nights alone, drinking — trying to stay numb.

I was never drunk on the ice; I want to make that clear. I took my responsibility to my teammates and the organizations that I played for seriously. So when I couldn’t drink, I coped in different ways. Mostly, I would try to stay busy. If we were on the road, I would go out shopping or run errands to try to pass the time before a game. I might be the only player in NHL history who never took a pregame nap. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be alone with myself in the middle of the day like that. Sleeping restfully is still a struggle for me.

Often, I was just bouncing off the walls — trying to stay so busy that I would never notice what a mess my life had become. 

My hockey journey took me all over: to Vancouver, to New York, to Los Angeles and, in 2007, to Chicago.

My career was at a fragile point when I joined the Blackhawks. The game had changed after the lockout. It was faster and more skill-oriented. Neither of those things fit my game.
Len Redkoles/NHLI/Getty Images

There was a lot of promise on that Chicago team — it excited my hockey mind. The Blackhawks had these two young kids coming up on the blue line: Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. They were tailor-made for the newer, faster NHL. Dale Tallon, the GM at the time, sat me down after he offered me a contract and said, “Brent, we want you to change your game a bit here, O.K.? We need you to show these younger players how to be pros, show them what it takes.”

I knew what he meant. He wanted me to become a defensive defenseman — and if I didn’t, my one-year deal in Chicago would probably be my last in the NHL. For most of my time in the league I had been a power-play specialist, a good passer with a heavy shot from the point. But in 2007 I went back to what I had loved when I was a kid – blocking pucks. I became the best shot-blocker I could be.

I had signed with the Blackhawks knowing that I still had demons. But once again, I put them to the side.

Alright … defensive defenseman … I can do that. I’m going to block every shot. I don’t care what bone it breaks. I don’t care how many bruises I get. This is my new role.

Playing with Keith and Seabrook made it easy to stay motivated. I knew I was helping them grow — I wanted to be a part of their development. When Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane started to come into their own, it seemed clear that we were only a few years away from being good … like really, really good. I wanted to be there for that. I wanted to see these kids grow up.

I wanted to win a Stanley Cup.

My drive home from the rink was 18 miles. I used to count them when I was driving back from practice — just to settle myself. For every one of those 18 miles I was in my mind, but in a good way. I was thinking about only hockey.

Three years later, we did indeed win the Stanley Cup. I remember every second of that day.

It had started with routine, of course.

We were in Philadelphia. Game 6 was that night. I was up early, at 7 a.m., just like every game day. I went and got breakfast, grabbed a couple of Red Bulls and got some fresh air. The morning skate came quickly — I couldn’t wait to be on the ice. After the skate, we usually had around four to five hours before we had to head over to the arena. That had always been the toughest time for me, when I had to stay busy and keep my mind occupied.

But on that day, I felt unusually calm.

My teammates were taking their naps, or visiting with their families — following their own routines. I walked to a park in downtown Philly and just people-watched.

It was the biggest day of my life. In just a few hours, I might finally get to fulfill my dream of lifting a Stanley Cup. But to everyone else in the park, it was Wednesday … just another day. Businessmen and women were taking their lunch breaks, people were walking dogs. It made me think back to my time on the farm, before my life became what it was — back when I felt like a regular person, having regular days.

I thought about the tractor. I thought about the breeze in my face when I would ride it down the hill. I wanted to feel that breeze again. I had been restoring it for the last couple years during the summers, and I told myself right then that I was going to ride around on it with the Cup if we won.

I continued with my routine. I grabbed a large Pepsi, a bag of M&M’s and got on the bus to the Wachovia Center. Even at the arena, I had to stick to my routine: I put on my skates the same way every time; taped my socks with the same design; stood up from my stall at the same time; went to the bathroom at the same time; and was the first one on the ice. I had to do it all the same, every single time.

It wasn’t superstition. It was part of controlling my still unknown dysfunctions, of calming my inner voices.

Sixty-four minutes after the puck drop, Patrick Kane scored the Cup winner in overtime. We were champions.Matt Slocum/AP Images and Brent Sopel

The next few weeks were a dream. The parade in Chicago was one of my favorite days ever.

And for a little while, I felt O.K. But even when things were good, I could still feel those nagging doubts in the back of my mind. And they started to take over every time I closed my eyes.

When the buzz from the celebrations began to wear off, I came back to reality. Despite having reached my goal, I was still me. I still had a long, long life ahead of me, and I knew I had issues that hockey couldn’t solve forever.


I remember when my kids were much younger they would ask me to read them bedtime stories. I couldn’t bring myself to stutter and struggle in front of them, so I would make stuff up. I told them these tales of adventure, love, fear and triumph. I used the same characters so my kids would become familiar with them. I took these characters, Pinky and Greenie, on all sorts of different journeys and experiences.

At first, my kids would smile and hang on every word as they tried to fight off sleep.

But after a while, they began to ask me how I knew these stories without having the books in front of me.

I never really knew how to answer that.

When my oldest daughter was in first grade, she began struggling in school, too.  She couldn’t keep up with the rest of the kids in her class, and she was getting frustrated.

Her mom and I decided to get her tested. We found a doctor nearby, and a few days after my daughter went in, we got the results.

“Alright, it looks like she has dyslexia and dysgraphia,” the doctor said.

Huh?

The doctor started listing all of her symptoms.

Oh, my God. That is me. That is me. That is me. That is me. That is me.

They were all me. I had all those symptoms, including trouble reading and writing. I had them all. I had the same problem. I had dyslexia and dysgraphia.

There it was, right in front of me for the first time. My problem.

All my life, I had no idea. That may sound ridiculous to you, but it’s the truth. My entire life I thought I was stupid. I thought I was different from everyone else. I could barely read or write, but I never thought it was because I had a learning disorder. I thought it was because I was an idiot. I mean, it was just drilled into my head day after day.  

But I was wrong. Everybody was wrong.

After 33 years, I finally understood why I was the way I was.

But I didn’t feel any sense of relief or happiness. I was just thankful that we were going to be able to get help for my daughter. I didn’t care about myself yet — I just wanted her to feel better. Her mom and I were able to find special programs and classes to help her. Her brain was still a sponge, and I couldn’t have been happier when we got her the help that she needed.  

In that doctor’s office I forgot about hockey for the first time in a long time.
Bill Smith/NHLI/Getty Images

But I couldn’t think about how to get help for myself yet. I couldn’t let go of the game. I tried to push hockey out of my brain, but I had gone back to it so many times before. It was still my crutch.

My career in the NHL was winding down. The Blackhawks traded me to Atlanta after we won the Cup, and then the Thrashers traded me to Montreal later that season — my last in the NHL. In 2011, I went over to Russia, where I played for 2½ years. I thought that maybe getting away from everything would help me to find myself, but the loneliness crept back in. Being away from my family was hard. The long, cold Russian winters took their toll on me mentally. I started to drink heavily again. I was trying hard to extend my career. But the end was coming. I knew it.

The truth was, I didn’t have to find myself.

I had to fix myself.

From the time I was two years old to the time I was 40, hockey was all I’d ever known. It was my life. My undiagnosed dyslexia and dysgraphia had forced me to hide from the world and focus only on the game. And when the time came for me to finally hang up my skates, I couldn’t deal with it. To have that door slammed in my face — to just be kicked out into the real world … I didn’t know how to take it.

My career was over.

My life was going a million miles an hour. I was drinking to mask my pain, I didn’t want to feel any feelings at all.

The days blurred into months, the months into years.

When you strip down a man to just his mind, you see who he really is. I saw who I really was.

I grew apart from those closest to me. My wife and I divorced. I felt as though I couldn’t explain myself. I didn’t have a purpose, a skill-set to hide behind. I questioned myself. Who was I? How had this charmed life that I thought I had, suddenly become so fragile, so hollow and so messed up.

It became too much. I became a statistic — another athlete who retires and then loses his sense of self-worth. My friends and family finally pulled me aside one day. “This is what’s going to happen,” they told me. “You’re going to get some help.”

So I went to rehab for 45 days.

I can say without a shadow of a doubt that those were the most important 45 days of my life. I believe rehab saved my life.

I’m not the same person I was before I went, and I never will be. Rehab helped me to understand what my life is now. I learned how to meditate, how to find peace. But there was one lesson that resonated with me more than any other.

To some, accepting yourself for who you are may sounds like words, but it’s a mindset. It’s a way of life.

The counselors taught me to love all that I have — my family, my friends, my experiences. Their lessons took hold, and I found myself finally able to enjoy the quiet moments that I used to fear. I can sit at home, alone, on a Friday night and just read. I often have to reread the same page several times, but I’m learning — that’s what matters. Being able to do that means the world to me.
Barbara Johnston/USA TODAY Sports

When I came out of rehab, I realized the damage I had caused to my friends and family. The people I had taken for granted, the relationships I had thrown away — everything became black and white. My learning disorders led directly to my alcoholism. And after the loss of my identity as a hockey player, I just wasn’t operating at full capacity.

Losing the connection with my children is the hardest thing that I am going through. It impacts me every single day. We aren’t as close as we once were. I don’t blame them. There was nobody around, including me, who could help them understand what I was going through.

I think about them every day.

I love them dearly and my most important goal in life, as I continue to work on being a better man, will be to ultimately earn their respect.

Losing the connection with my children is the hardest thing that I am going through.

Brent Sopel

I’m trying to live life to the fullest now. I’m working as analyst for NBC Sports, WGN Radio in Chicago and 120 Sports (a free app on your phone). I’m also supporting great brands that can make a difference in the health-and-wellness space.

The chance to be able to stay involved with hockey and teach people about the game is one I’m incredibly grateful for. It has also encouraged me to go back to school. I’m taking online classes. It’s not easy, but it’s a struggle that I’m more than O.K. with. Having an education is necessary if I want to progress to the next stage of my life.

It’s a strange feeling to retire from your profession at such a young age. I’m 40 years old. I still have half my life ahead of me. I said earlier that I had accomplished my goals by reaching the NHL and winning a Stanley Cup, but I know now that those should never have been my goals. I sort of intuitively knew, no matter what I did, that there would be this dark cloud waiting for me when my career was over.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

I don’t want a single child to grow up the way I did.

I don’t want anyone, no matter their age, to feel like they’re stupid. I don’t want somebody to feel useless because of dyslexia, dysgraphia or anything similar. My future is clear to me now. I want to dedicate myself to helping children with learning disabilities. I’m working on a children’s book based on the characters I created for my own kids, Pinky and Greenie. There’s tremendous work being done by people around the world to not only help kids, but also to help adults who suffer from learning disabilities.

I’m no longer just “Brent Sopel, former NHL defenseman.” I have an opportunity to help those who are going through the same things that I did. In doing so, I also have an opportunity to continue to heal myself.

My issues used to torture me. They brought me to rock bottom. The brought me to the darkest period of my life.

But I will not be defined by what happened to me.

I am more than that.

We all are.


In conjunction with this article, I am proud to announce the launch of my new website, which will highlight the extensive work I will be doing with several outstanding dyslexia and learning disability support organizations.

I want kids to get diagnosed and have access to support while they are still in school. There are two groups I want to mention that are doing outstanding work in this area. The Dyslexia Buddy Network (DBN) was formed in Illinois in 2014 by a passionate group of parents, led by Kristin Paxton. What makes DBN unique is that it’s completely focused on helping kids with dyslexia rather than on raising awareness about the disability. The second group is one that all parents concerned about their child’s learning and attention disabilities should review It’s called Understood.org, and it does an outstanding job of helping families and schools understand the significant issues associated with learning disabilities.

You can find information on both organizations on my new website, BrentSopel.com.